by: Rev. Ed Smelser, Bridges for Peace
This would be his last trip to the Holy City—the birthplace of the church—though he may not have known it at the time. Although Paul’s work among the Gentile converts was flourishing, he remained deeply attached to his Jewish roots and the body of Hebrew believers who made up the church in Jerusalem.
Their well-being was of great concern to him, and he was excited about presenting to them a tangible expression of his labor in other lands.
Such a journey was necessary lest the growing demands of his ministry among the Gentile Church abroad distance him from his own people. He also understood that the Jewish element of the Church faced the prospect of being outnumbered and, before long, forgotten.
As the leading apostle among the nations, Paul found his first-century situation troubling. What could be done to cement relationships between the Jews and Gentile of the Church? What could be done to plant in the heart of the Greek and other congregations the same burden he felt for his Jewish brethren?
Paul concluded that the answer might lie in a demonstration of love and support for the mother church in Jerusalem in the form of a gift to the poor. He had good reason for this conclusion. Yeshua (Jesus) had taught in the Sermon on the Mount, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21).
In Romans 15, Paul goes as far as to present it as a principle of our faith: non-Jewish believers in Yeshua owe a debt to His people for all the wonderful spiritual gifts given to the world through the Jews. This principle finds expression elsewhere in Paul’s epistle to the Romans, as he describes the expanding ministry of the Church, as with prior moves of God, as being “to the Jew first” (Rom. 1:16; 2:9–10).
Paul also was familiar with the history of the formation of the early Church. People had sold houses and lands and brought the proceeds to be used to preserve and propagate the work in Jerusalem, which was almost exclusively Jewish.
Barnabas, a Levite from Cyprus, sold his land and brought the money and laid it at the feet of the apostles (Acts 4:36–37). In those days, there was great power manifested on the church in Jerusalem as the numbers of believers multiplied.
The gift that Paul was delivering was similar to the gift of assistance that he and Barnabas had brought years before on behalf of the Antioch church in Acts 11:27–30: “Then the disciples, each according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea.” Again in Acts 24:17, Paul says, “I came [to Jerusalem] to bring alms and offerings to my nation.”
Other writings of Paul make it clear that he had given this great priority in his ministry among the Gentiles. He gave orders to the believers in Corinth, just as he had to the church of Galatia, to take up weekly contributions which later were to be delivered by their chosen emissaries to Jerusalem (1 Cor. 16:1–4). This was reiterated in his second epistle to them (2 Cor. 8:1–9:15). Paul further tells the church at Galatia that when he was first sent out by the apostles in the Jerusalem church to preach to the nations, the only stipulation given was that he “should remember the poor; the very thing which I was also eager to do” (Gal. 2:9–10). This is yet another reference to his open concern for the poor among his Jewish brethren in Jerusalem, a burden obviously shared by James, Peter, and John. Thus we see, that whenever Paul was sent to Jerusalem, it became his pattern to go bearing gifts that had been collected from the Gentile churches. This is a seldom taught, yet dynamic principle at the heart of Paul’s theology and emphasis to the early Church.
According to Paul’s remarks in Romans 15:27, there were two important reasons for collecting gifts for the work at Jerusalem, and either is sufficient reason for these offerings to show the love of Yeshua to the Jews of the city and to the congregation of believers there. First as a love gift, “they [Gentile believers] were pleased to do it”. Second, as an obligation, “they owe it to them.”
In Romans 9:4–5, Paul gives us some sense of the magnitude of this indebtedness: “Who are Israelites: to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all.”
I personally experienced God’s patience in teaching me that it is to “the Jew first.” As pastors of evangelical churches in the United States for more than 22 years, many of my friends and I were on a search for that elusive missing “piece” to complete the picture of what made the Church totally “New Testament.” My quest led me to accept an invitation to visit Israel. That visit became my journey of discovery concerning the biblical pattern, “to the Jew first.”
This often-ignored principle was emphasized by Yeshua’s parting words on the day of His ascension: “You shall be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The Holy Spirit-empowered relationship of the Church to Israel, and ultimately to the nations, begins in Jerusalem, through prayer, serving, and giving.
Within a few years, the gospel was given to the Gentile world through the priorities of a Gentile soldier, an Italian officer named Cornelius, stationed in Caesarea Maritima. The prayers and almsgiving of Cornelius had “come up for a memorial before the Lord,” and God directed the apostle Peter to take the Gospel to this devout Gentile. The pattern of Cornelius’s prayers and giving brought salvation to his whole house (Acts 11:14). Peter would later recount the story to the church leaders in Jerusalem, and “when they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, ‘Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life’” (Acts 11:18). The revelation and mandate to Peter to take the Gospel to the Gentiles had become common knowledge and gained acceptance among the early Church fathers. The Gospel became available to the Gentile nations when a Gentile man blessed “the nation of the Jews” (Acts 10:22) and put “legs to his prayers” by giving alms to God’s chosen people.
I have found in my own experience that giving the Jews their rightful place is the surest way to combat the subtle lie that the Church has replaced Israel as God’s chosen people. Correct doctrine about the Lord’s chosen people blesses both the Church and the Jews. Additionally, the Jews, who have suffered millennia of horrible persecution at the hands of Gentile Christians, are now coming to know the Church as their most reliable ally in this hour of their greatest need and greatest opportunity. To touch them in any negative way is to “touch the apple of His eye” (Zech. 2:8). To bless them is to touch the heart of God.
The possibilities, and blessings, to be realized in the application of the principle “to the Jew first” is more relevant today than at any time since the days of Paul’s journeys back to Jerusalem, bearing gifts from the Gentile churches. In these days when we see God fulfilling His prophecies and promises to the Jewish people, the Church must search out meaningful ways to communicate our indebtedness.
The pattern—“to the Jew first” must continue until God’s redemptive purposes are fulfilled. Our obedience to God in this area will bring to pass His will concerning Israel, as well as His will concerning Christians.
One reason we should practice “to the Jew first” is because the Jews have blessed the nations. John Adams, the second president of the United States, said, “I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation…” Through the Bible, which the Jewish people so diligently preserved through the centuries, the Jewish people have profoundly influenced how societies and governments function. Paul Johnson, Christian historian and author of A History of the Jews and A History of Christianity, wrote, “To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of human person; of the individual conscience and so a personal redemption; of collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind.”
Considering that the Jews make up only one-fourth of 1% (13 million) of the world’s population (6 billion) that is 99% non-Jewish, their accomplishments—proportionate to the world’s population—is quite astounding. It would take pages to list everything the Jewish people have given the world. Here are but a few of their contributions:
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